I have never – not that I can remember - told or read the gospel quite the way I have tonight. Tonight, I wanted to try to tell the gospel story that we all know so well. I didn’t want to read the story, rather I wanted to communicate the story to you for two reasons really. One is that the story would have been heard by early Christians not read. And the story was probably much more expansive than the version that we read now. A lot has been left out and so tonight I thought we could flesh out the story a little bit. Secondly, the Nativity story has a lot of close, intimate meaning for me. Most folks have lots of memories of growing up with Christmas. Some of my Christmas stories are quite difficult but most are whimsical and joyful.
We had quite a few family Christmas traditions growing up. The one that has stayed with me the longest and has meant the most to me, quite frankly, is the Roberts family tradition of sitting in a circle before we went to bed, as children, and reading the King James Version of the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Initially my parents would read it, but as we got older, first my older sister and then my brother and then me had a turn to read the story or part of it for the rest of the family. I remember being bored when I wasn’t reading; I was ready to go to bed, so I could wake up, and then the “good part” of Christmas happened; we got to see what Santa Claus had brought us. Yet, as I have grown older, the sacredness of my parents in how they held this story; something magical happened that night two thousand years ago and they wanted to nourish and nurture the reality of that story in and for us.
As I alluded to at the top of this homily there are a lot of things left out of the Nativity story that, as time went by, may have seemed immaterial or a relevant. One of the “left out” things that has come up for me this year is this: “Why did Mary come with Joseph on this journey in the first place?” Luke’s Gospel appears to say that Mary and Joseph had to come to be registered but, in actuality, everything went through male lineage and, most likely, Joseph was the only person who had to appear physically and be registered for this Roman tax.
Why did Mary come? She’s obviously very pregnant and for the first time. Even if Mary has made her peace with the reality of who her child going to be it still would be nerve-racking to go down to Bethlehem - about 70-ish miles from Nazareth - when she is close to giving birth. Why not stay in Nazareth and allow Joseph to go by himself. Why not stay where your mother or your grandmother or your sister, or some other female relative – people capable of helping to deliver a child in a safer, more sanitized, and comfortable environment- were on hand?
Then I imagine that the only two people in the world, in that moment, with any inkling of who this child was going to be were Mary and Joseph. The angel had appeared to both of them, had told both of them, that the child Mary is carrying would be the son of the most high God and he would save the people from their sins. In fact, they were both told His name is to be Jesus which means “God saves.” And so, it makes sense that Mary and Joseph should be together when this child Is born. The other part of the story that is left out is the whole idea of childbirth. Luke tells us that they came to Bethlehem, it was time for Mary to deliver the baby; she did that, end of story.
Now, anyone who has been through childbirth - and I know I don’t know what I’m talking about because I haven’t been through it - knows that it is painful. And anyone who has been through childbirth or is witness to someone bearing a child and holds her hand, tells her it is okay and tries not to annoy her too much knows that childbirth produces a goodly amount of blood. So, here are Mary and Joseph, having just delivered a child in an isolated, lonely place, laying quietly but exhausted. Mary is holding this kind of gunky, misshapen, pink little person close to her. The son of God, right now, is entirely vulnerable and helpless. “God with us.” So Mary and Joseph embrace the reality of their roles in the story of God‘s saving love: they are to hold the good news of God in Christ close to them, nourish that good news, feed the word of God in Christ and watch that Word grow. When it is time, they will let that good news go and they will follow him and he will nourish them.
The capper to this story of God’s nourishing love is the shepherds. The angels have also appeared to them. It’s no accident that the good news of God appeared to the poorest of the poor in the darkest places in the darkest part of God’s universe at that time. Shepherds were at the very bottom of the social pecking order, Just slightly better than prostitutes and tax collectors. They were considered ritually unclean. And to these shepherds the angel of God brings tidings of good news that will be for all people and will send them to Bethlehem to witness the mystery themselves. And they are obviously changed by what they see. My guess is they didn’t see halos behind Mary’s and Joseph’s heads or actual brilliant light shining from the manger or the baby himself. But they experienced all the same the mystery and power that comes to us when we realize that God has come among us as one of us and will/has saved us from the darkness. The reality of God with us is a saving mystery we are compelled to learn – like a family sitting around a living room, reading the story , share, to share and hold close to us, and to let go before us, guiding us, informing our journey and giving us the strength to tell it on the Mountain all that we have seen and heard about the saving love born to us in Christ.